Mystic Sweet Communion
Consider your deepest relationship. With your spouse, say, or with a parent or sibling. A friend, perhaps, or a colleague who shares your life project. Or maybe a child, from the time of her or his infancy, who gazed at you wordlessly, soft-eyed, trusting. Disarmed, you gazed back in wordless love.
God is love, we proclaim. Our good experiences of interpersonal love prime us ultimately to turn our attention to the source of love. Our bad experiences, too, on reflection, reveal to us how deep is our hunger for the love that does not harm. With grace, in time we turn away from love that destroys toward love that gives eternal life. Divine love is like human love, but infinitely better—pure unbounded love, as we sing. From awareness of boundless love, the psalmist’s prayerful affirmation arises:
for God alone my soul in silence waits.
Staying with the human analogy, sometimes with our loved ones we talk too much! We forget to listen, but instead go on and on—positively or negatively—about ourselves. Similarly, we can approach God absorbed with our own prayer-form chatter, driven internally by craving or negativity, inattentive to the reality of the Beloved before us. In noisy mode, we can fail to actually attend to God at all, even though we think we are praying or worshipping. Rather, we’re liable to project our fantasy or our mess onto God, seeing only the images that our minds are generating.
The mystics call us out of such yammering dreams. Shut up! they seem to say. Pay attention! God is in the room, in the world, in the cosmos, in your heart of hearts. Let go of the chatter and the clamor and the projections, and behold! Mystics engage unitive prayer, wordless, in soft-eyed gaze toward the Beloved, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
The mystics are honored in Christian tradition as those ardent souls who found ways to come with joy to meet their Lord without selfish preconception. They found their way beyond projection to awe-struck attention to the God of love, and they left written and artistic testimonies for the benefit of us, their heirs in faith.
Some of them seem to have come easily to union with God in Christ; others have needed the most stringent self-discipline to get out of their own way. Some have followed church orthodoxy to the letter as their way of liberation; others have wandered far enough to have felt the wrath of the hierarchy. Nevertheless, they persisted; their faithful vision of God was experiential, not second-hand, and in many cases proved instructional to the authorities of the church with the passing of time.
Gerald L Sittser, author of Water from a Deep Well—the book that has been discussed in Trinity on Wednesdays until the pandemic arrived this week—writes about several mystics recognized by the church as saints and exemplars. Sittler describes various ways that these mystical super-stars by the grace of God managed to get over themselves, to plunge into the deepest joy of union with the infinite triune God. Sittser does a good job of laying out some of the literature of churchmen and women who left records of their experiences. I found it odd that he introduced the chapter by declaring Thomas Aquinas not a mystic, (but see 331 in Hymnal 1982) offering the speculation that the Angelic Doctor’s supposed single Eucharistic mystic vision caused his early death. As I read the saint’s biography, Aquinas’ premature death seems to have come the usual way, through an illness that might have been congestive heart failure. Sittler’s attribution of death by mysticism suggests that mysticism is dangerous, and mystics are aberrant. I don’t agree! Mysticism, unitive prayer, is not extraordinary, although not everyone calls the prayer of their heart by that name. I have known a good number of discreet mystics and button-down visionaries in the churches where I’ve served, including Trinity.
Keep faith, pay attention to life and love and compassion; to truth and beauty; to the sacraments and the sacramental universe; and, yes, to babies’ innocent trust, and by grace you may find yourself face-to-face with the living God.